NOTE: Update at bottom…
Silicon Valley’s hot again. How can I tell? My favorite barometer is a personal one – my commute down either of the the two major highways joining San Francisco and San Jose is as bad as it was in the bubble.
On a less anecdotal note, I’ve also been spending a lot of time with newly funded startups (and the ballooning ranks of venture and private equity investors). Interest level, and market opportunity, are up, for the innovations that fuel the internet.
On the technology front, one of the most interesting trends I’ve seen is the near disappearance of custom hardware. I’m not seeing nearly so many ASICS or custom boards built by hardware startups hoping to become the next Sun or Cisco. I was talking to one such company just a couple weeks ago, run by a guy known for having made big investments in custom hardware designs over the years. So I asked “where’d all the ASICS go?”
His response? “The bar’s a lot higher today – general purpose products are so fast, we do pretty much everything in software.” As Solaris and the systems on which it runs get faster, they’re continuing to displace a breadth of specialized solutions in the market, from customized operating systems or private distros to ASICS and daughter boards.
And in an interesting way, this goes against what customers want.
For the most part, customers love special purpose systems. The NAS filers, load balancers, storage switches and firewalls, even custom search appliances, solve a specific problem, do so with great focus, and are like novacaine on a technical problem. Have a pain? Numb it with an appliance.
There’s only one part they don’t love. Living with the economics.
Leaving high price tags aside, specialized products typically require specialized skills, customized management or versioning processes, and they tend to be difficult to integrate into increasingly uniform datacenter processes. (Southwest Airlines gets great economic advantage from only flying Boeing 737’s – most CIO’s crave a “737 datacenter,” built on one OS, with shared services for all – yet most will admit to having inherited a Noah’s Ark).
On the other hand, suppliers (like Sun) love general purpose systems. By design, general purpose systems, like general purpose servers or operating systems, aren’t focused on one market. Instead, they focus on horizontal segments of the market (like web serving), and allow us to amortize R&D investments over a far broader opportunity. While allowing us and our customers to leverage the management, supply chains, administration, versioning and even ISV’s that build up around very high volume platforms.
Potentially more work for the customer on day one, but typically massive financial and administrative savings. As an example, tomorrow morning we’re introducing a new product, internally named “Thumper.” It’s a 4 core server with 24 terabytes of storage, housed within a very small (4 RU) box, leveraging the most advanced file system to hit the market in years, ZFS.
We’re still figuring out what to call the product, “open source storage” or “a data server,” but by running a general purpose OS on a general purpose server platform, packed to the gills with storage capacity, you can actually run databases, video pumps or business intelligence apps directly on the device itself, and get absolutely stunning performance. Without custom hardware (ZFS puts into software what was historically done with specialized hardware). All for around $2.50/gigabyte – with all software included.
How much new work does a customer need to do to run Thumper in their network? None. It’s just a Solaris system, managed, versioned and administered like all their other Solaris systems. How much work does an ISV need to do to take advantage of Thumper? None, like I said, it’s just Solaris, the same as what runs on our, HP’s, Dell’s and IBM’s servers.
And the best part for Sun? Thumper leverages the general purpose systems innovation at our core, leverages the open source operating system used in datacenters across the world already, and allows us to amortize a tighter R&D budget over a broader market. While driving cost down for customers, and expanding the market for our ISV’s, resellers and partners. Moving from specialized to generalized.
So if you’d like to know what Thumper looks like (and at 170 lbs, it is a thing of beauty, but a very heavy thing of beauty), it looks like this:
And yes, we will be including Thumper in our Try and Buy program. And I’d like to personally apologize to all those poor UPS, DHL and FedEx drivers…
Update: video for this morning’s launch event, here. Worth watching all (especially Fowler’s segment). My favorite part was Tim O’Reilly talking about the impact of Web 2.0 on application architectures and datacenter requirements. He’s accompanied by Scott Yara from Greenplum, one of the smartest startups I’ve seen in a while. Their interview is at 1:04:35 in the playback.
And btw, given the volume of comments related to “how do I replace a dead drive” in Thumper – the answer is you don’t, you let Solaris and ZFS simply remove it from use (while maintaining provable data integrity), and leave it for an annual maintenance call to clean out failed drives and drop in fresh ones (known in the business as “failing in place”). If you’re interested in understanding the magic behind ZFS, this is a great tutorial (delivered by one of the inventors of ZFS, the very eloquent Bill Moore).